Florida Folklife Program
Florida Folklife Apprenticeships
George "Junior" Mills and J. P. "Curly" Dekle - Cow Whips
by Robert L. Stone
Florida cowmen use braided leather whips to control the movement of cattle, though the whips seldom actually touch the animals. The cattle respond to the loud "crack" of the whip, without having to be struck. Some people say the name "Florida Cracker" derives from the sounds of cowboys cracking their whips while driving a herd. The Florida cracker whip is characterized by the way the whip body attaches to the hollow wooden handle by means of a leather thong. Junior Mills and Curly Dekle both make cow whips, but their methods of construction and their use of the whips differ.
Okeechobee cowboy Mills has been working cattle on Florida ranches since he was 14. He began teaching himself to make whips at 15. As fellow cowboys began to value his handiwork, whip making became a supplement to the wages he earned as a cowboy. Currently in his seventh decade of whip making, Mills estimates that he has crafted hundreds of utilitarian whips. Today he painstakingly fashions whips from buckskin by first cutting the "strings" from tanned hides and then plaiting several layers in a carefully controlled taper. To achieve a smooth taper, he is exacting about the dimensions to which he cuts the strings and is careful to plait them under just the right amount of tension. The "belly," or thickest part of the whip, consists of four layers. At the end of the whip, he ties a thin piece of deerskin, about a foot long, called a "cracker." It is this component that is responsible for the loud noise. He protects his finished whips from sun, sand, rain and abrasion by coating them with a mixture he makes by heating beef tallow, beeswax and pine rosin.
Dekle, who lives in the northeast Florida town of Macclenny, learned to braid whips from his father, "Judge" Dekle, while growing up on a farm near Lake Butler. His father taught him the basis for two refinements in whip construction that he says greatly improve balance, accuracy and loudness. First, he weights the belly of the whip with BB pellets rolled in a strip of duct tape. Second, unlike most other whip makers (including Mills), he braids the outer layer of leather from the tip toward the handle, so that there is no final knot at the tip to interfere with the cracking action. Dekle became adept at cracking whips and is renowned for his whip acts performed at rodeos and festivals throughout Florida and other southern states. Over the years he has refined his act, which includes plenty of country humor and audience interaction. Highlights of his presentation include whipping Styrofoam straws from the mouth of an audience volunteer and firing a rifle by striking its trigger with his whip.